Do you suspect that if only you had more self-confidence, you’d be able to make your life work better? Chances are you’re right! The primary tools for effecting change are believing in 1) our ability to make it happen and 2) our right to happiness. Power and entitlement. Those are the ingredients of self-confidence. Self-confidence fluctuates with our circumstances. When we’re happy, we feel strong and effective. Blue? Not so much. Do not, however, think that it just happens tous. We have control over how we respond to the world, and the stronger our self-confidence, the better we fare, regardless the situation. How do we build self-confidence? There are five components of self-confidence, all of which interlace and build upon one another. They form a sort of circle, or perhaps an ever-ascending spiral. If we were to draw it, it might look like this: The great thing about this tool is that you can get on anywhere. You only need to start somewhere and the process of improving your self-confidence has begun. Let’s say you begin with Acceptance of Personal Rights. Think about what that means, do an internet search, seek out books relating to that topic (librarians are great help here). Whatever you do, you’ll find that as you accept and internalize your own personal rights, you’ll find yourself… Behaving more assertively. And now you’ve quite smoothly moved on to the next phase of becoming self-confident. As you act assertively out there in your world, you ‘naturally’ begin to take better care of yourself, and so on, and so on… Remember, though, that you must commit to the momentum of the process to keep it going. As with any other change, our old behaviours resist and our new ways of being need reinforcement to feel natural. Also, this simple graphic lacks the robust explanations it deserves. Each step benefits from suggestions, recommendations, exercises and discussion. All that is available through brief therapy, which can focus on building self-confidence, tailored to your specific situation. Whatever methods you choose, do work on building your self-confidence. It’s that unmistakeable inner glow that looks so darned good on all of us!
Category: Courtship& Dating
Dear Dr Ren and Bloom,
As a woman of a certain age, I learned to follow the rules. That included marrying a man I liked immensely, and burying my sexual attraction to women. My husband died three years ago, after which I decided it was time to act on this attraction.
Recently, I told one of my girlfriends my “secret,” and she shared that she’d had some girl on girl action in college. A bottle of wine later, I got to act on my desires for the first time.
Sadly, this is not a letter of rejoicing. I was ready for anything, but the experience was a complete letdown. I didn’t even have an orgasm.
I’m so depressed. I always thought sex with my husband was dull because I wasn’t really into his body. Now I finally have sex with my body of choice, and the sex is still boring! Is there something wrong with me?
I am so…
Sex, romance, desire, compatibility—all such complex experiences. We so want them to be straightforward and understandable. Media representations of ‘falling in love’ look so easy. Real life, however, requires some basic skills.
Not only do we need to know what it is that we like personally, we need to know how to communicate those wishes and how to hear the longings of our partners at times when blood is literally and figuratively rushing in our ears…and other bits.
First time sex is a cache of material for comics. We can all recount stories of sex gone wrong on first encounters. Add that bottle of wine, so useful to drown inhibitions but also so conducive to sloppiness, and you have the makings of a regretful evening. Please don’t use your one, sodden lesbian tryst as a yardstick for what your future sex life may be! I’ll bet if you recall your initial heterosexual encounter, you’ll nod with humorous recognition as well!
Another factor at play here is that, to date, you have been sexual with two friends. I suspect that if you play with someone to whom you are erotically attracted—I mean really sexually besotted—you’ll feel the earth move. Desire and arousal fuel one another.
So far you’ve been a good girl. You’ve followed the rules, played it safe, coloured inside the lines. You have, quite correctly, identified this period in your life as time for you to meet your own needs. Your task now is to identify what those needs are.
In order to find lovers in synch with you, you’ll need to learn your own body’s appetites, so long buried. Become your own best lover so you can teach others what your body likes.
Experiment with masturbation toys. Learn whether you respond to penetration by using dildos and smooth, insertable vibrators. Think you are a clitoral gal? Your choices are many and varied. Do your swelling labia beg for attention? Or perhaps you respond wildly to anal or nipple stimulation. You don’t have to choose just one. Each of us expresses a unique symphony of preferences.
The point is there is no right—or wrong—answer to the ways arousal works for you, and Bloom is here to respond to the full range of women’s sexuality. There are toys for every woman’s choices.
Do not be discouraged. You are new to a grand journey of discovery. Give yourself permission to explore your possibilities. You’ll then be ready to share your knowledge with partners who can appreciate and augment your power and joy.
Dear Dr Ren and Bloom,
I’ve always dated men, and happily so. I like sex with men. But recently I watched some lesbian porn that really turned me on. I would like to find out what sex with another woman would be like, but I’m not interested in adopting a lesbian lifestyle.
You are what we describe as “bi-curious.” Though you are not actually questioning your heterosexual orientation, you would like to experiment with what sex with a woman feels like. This is common, especially as our culture is becoming more tolerant of sexual experimentation. Recent research, notably by Meston and Diamond, validates the fluidity of women’s erotic arousal targets throughout their lifespans.
With access to internet dating, realizing our fantasies can be a reality fairly easily. Remember that the majority of lesbian porn is still made by men, for men. The sex you are likely watching would not approximate your real life experience. To see how lesbian sex is in real life, seek out erotica made by and for lesbians.
How will sex with another woman be different?
First of all, there will be a lot more talking, and sex will take hours. Women tend to put emphasis on different aspects of sex. You will likely discover a more languid pace. Penetration is not a given. Dominant and submissive roles are not based on sex-role stereotyping, so initiation and flirtation must be shared or at least negotiated on some level.
Your emotions, too, will need to be managed. Sex with someone new is captivating, and the cascade of endorphins you’ll enjoy will feel a whole lot like falling in love. To avoid appropriately hurt feelings, you’ll need to stay aware.
Choose your partners carefully. Be clear with your intentions. Nobody wants to be a science experiment.
Once you’ve contemplated these factors and are ready to try dating, consider seeking bi-sexual women rather than those who identify as lesbian. The advantages are:
- Bisexual women will better understand your primary identification as a straight woman. Many of them will share your diversity of attraction.
- Bisexual women have a comfort with the bodies of both men and women, and what sex with same and divergent sex parts is like.
- Identify yourself clearly as bisexual seeking an experience. This alerts lesbian women looking for another woman who DOES live the lifestyle.
If you want to proceed to finding a suitable date for this new adventure, see http://www.smartsextalk.com/im-bi-curious/.
Does this make you a lesbian?
You tell me you are curious about sex with a woman, but don’t want to adopt a lesbian lifestyle. There’s not one model, you know.
In other words, be willing to change your plans. Sex is mightily powerful, and so is friendship, and sex between women involves both. If you find yourself happy and content with a woman you intended to be solely an experiment, be prepared to change course. It is always your choice.
Don’t let these considerations to deter you from indulging your curiosity. Indeed, it is repressing our eroticisms that torments us and our lovers far more greatly than those we realize. Still, these are not mathematical equations you are trying to solve. Expecting this to go smoothly is unrealistic.
Be brave, be adventuresome, and be prepared. Immerse yourself in the heady intoxication of discovering something about yourself that you didn’t know beforehand. It will leave you smiling.
I’m a sex therapist in private practice. I’m asked all sorts of interesting questions on a regular basis. The following touched on sensitive and important issues deserving of being shared with others. Here’s the question. Do you agree with my answer?
I’m a politically active high femme lesbian. About ten years ago, I met an attractive Butch when we shared both political and social interests. We became friendly, and even sparked, but didn’t act on it.
Fast forward to the present. After years of living in different cities, we met again at a dance. Surprise! She’s transitioned to male. The chemistry is still there, and we’re both available, but now it all seems confusing. He’s asked me out, and his intentions are clear: to act on our long-standing mutual attraction.
I’m torn. I glory in being visible on the arm of a Butch woman…otherwise society reads me as straight. And my work is LGBT sensitive (as is his). My identity as a lesbian is clear.
Still, I know and like this person. We have good history, shared values, similar interests. This could be a wonderful opportunity.
Can I be seen as a lesbian and date this man? How do I maintain my identity when together we read as a straight couple?
Can you be seen as a lesbian? Nothing will change except when you are with your new lover. As a couple, you will probably be read by strangers as straight, just as you are now when alone. Outsiders will not recognize you.
You both work in queer-related jobs, and likely both have diverse circles of friends. Stay connected with your (now expanded) social network. You’ll find support there from those who matter.
You may encounter resistance even within your tribe, as identities and loyalties are sensitive to change. Some will resist the intersectionality of gender and sexual expression. However, you will come to understand difference and acceptance on a whole new level. When you analyze it, can you think of anything more transgressive than dating this man? It’s coming out multiplied!
And, don’t forget, you’ll now get to discover this person with whom you’ve shared a long term attraction, and to learn him as his authentic self!
Granted, you will be doing a lot of explaining. Even well-intentioned people will ask completely personal and inappropriate questions. You will need to be visible and vocal in entirely new ways. Dating a transman will stretch you, challenge you to examine how you feel about the rainbow of diversity that encompasses being different sexually and socially.
As your sense of sexandgender adjusts, you may need to adapt your language. “Queer” may fit better now than “lesbian.” There’s not one right answer, nor hurry to choose personally-appropriate labels. You can get yourself tee shirts that proudly proclaim you “Lesbian with an asterisk,” “Passing for straight,” or “Queer Femme,” and wear them while on your new man’s arm as well as when you are solo. Watch the world react, and monitor your own responses. A little discomfort is the price for challenging conven““`tion.
Make no mistake: you will be changed forever. Your sexuality will be recognized and responded to differently. Though your suitor is no more straight than you are, you’ll both be granted heterosexual privilege, even when you don’t want it. You will be in daring new territory and, as you develop your expanded identity, you’ll become more comfortable with your own way.
If you choose to date this old friend and comrade, do so because he is a transman, not despite it. He has lived within your camp, is fluent in your language, and appreciates feminism (and feminine!) in a truly unique way. And, wow!, does he get the Butch/femme dance!
Aim to match his bravery and authenticity with your own. The results may be spectacular! After all, the only time you run out of chances is when you quit taking them.
This month’s Hot Topic is wed to our case study because a therapy session prompted the theme for this column. I spoke with a woman, Pam, who came to see me about two years after her divorce. She felt she had completed her grieving process and had recently begun to date again. She was moving cautiously and trying to make good decisions.
She was concerned about how to broach the topic of safe sex with new partners. She knew not to have unprotected sex “in the beginning”. But “When,” Pam wailed, “does the beginning end? And then what? Help!”
I asked if she understood the concept of fluid bonding and how it can guide her safely through new sexual relationships. She shook her head. She admitted the topic confused and embarrassed her. I assured her that most of us feel that way and I shared these basic guidelines with her:
When we have sex with a new partner, we use barrier protection. Sex is defined as any activity in which we exchange body fluids capable of carrying viruses and bacteria. Those fluids include blood, semen and, to a lesser extent, vaginal secretions. The roles of saliva and tears are still being debated but, in any case, they are far less risky. Barriers are materials that prevent the transmission of those fluids. They include condoms, dams, and plastic wrap.
In the beginning of a sexual relationship, we use barrier protection during sex every single time with every single partner. No exceptions!
When a casual sexual relationship becomes more committed and we wish to dispense with the barriers during sex we discuss (yes, that means using our words) beginning a fluid bonding contract.
Each of us goes to a doctor or clinic and gets a full battery of tests to screen for STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Ask your doctor or clinic which tests are advisable or go online and educate yourself. Sometimes regional considerations will affect your decision – for instance, you may be advised to test for a particular strain of hepatitis recently reported in your area.
Our fluid bonding contract begins when we both get back clean bills of health. Because many “bugs” need time to show up – including HIV – we count six months from this date, retest, and if our next set of tests are also negative, we can safely dispense with barrier protection when we have sex with each other.
It is important to note that the contract applies only to the two people who have had both sets of tests and have had only protected sex during that time. If these criteria are met, we can joyously and responsibly become fluid bonded, meaning there is no danger of transmitting or acquiring an STI from one another through the exchange of sexual fluids.
When I finished this explanation, Pam replied, “Six months after we both get tested clear? Are you nuts?” I admitted that six months feels like a very long time to be fussing with barriers when we are busy establishing a trusting relationship and falling in love. It is a time of frequent lovemaking, and the last thing we want to be thinking about is viruses.
We are adults and we must make adult decisions. On one hand, we may be protecting against nothing at all. On the other hand, we may be protecting against a lethal disease. Do we want to ask the questions that will help us determine how much risk we believe we are taking? If our new lover has been in a (probably) sexually-exclusive relationship for many years prior to being with us, our risk could be minimal. If our new lover has been with a number of partners, however – or even with only a few, but was not practicing safe sex – then our risk rises. And then there’s our own history, and how much of it we want to share – and how honest we are about it.
So, you see, the fluid bonding contract and its cautious time-line allows us to skip those dodgy conversations for the first six months while we are learning about each other. Keeping ourselves and each other pristinely safe is a respectful way of maintaining clear boundaries about how much we need to tell. Most of us have judgments about sex and most of us fear other people’s judgments about our own sexual activity, so we can’t always trust that we’re hearing the truth. With things as important as our health and our new relationship at stake, six months really doesn’t seem so long to wait.
The point is that the fluid bonding contract is a template that ensures our mutual sexual health. We each get to decide how we behave within that framework. The tragedy is in not knowing our risks and responsibilities and unwittingly putting ourselves in harm’s way. Sex is an adult game and is surely fun to play, but there are rules. When we play by the rules, we have just as much fun and fewer consequences. Here’s to both!
The subject of courtship is vast. We’re all interested in it, and few of us feel equipped to do it with grace. It’s exciting…and it’s scary. We know some things about the courtship process. It has a certain number of steps, which differ depending on whose research your using (today we’ll use mine), and starts with ‘hello’…first meeting…and progresses through a ‘getting to know you’ stage to the pivotal point of being sexual together, which we call ‘consummation.’ Of course courtship continues…hopefully forever, but here I want to talk about the early part of the process because it is so important…and where we all start.
Every relationship begins with “hello”, in one form or another. We rarely know when we’re going to meet someone new, nor do we know where that new relationship will go. This is one of the exciting aspects of dating. When we are open to opportunity, all sorts of surprises are in store! We are easily intimidated by courtship. We hear warnings like, “You won’t find anyone special until you quit looking.” Hogwash! It’s fairy-tale thinking: that if you just sleepwalk through life, waiting for your prince (or princess) to come, that your passivity will be rewarded with happily-everafter. The truth is we have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it, and we spend far more Saturday nights in our jammies…alone… waiting for a knock on our door than if we are out there having fun and keeping our eyes open.
Another trap we can easily fall into is going to some place loaded with potentials rather than going somewhere where we know we will have a good time. If you’re lousy at drinking and loud music gives you a headache, quit frequenting the bars. If you don’t ‘get’ poetry, stay away from the slams. If you were born lacking a sporty gene, leave that locker room. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy doing? What do I do just because it makes me happy?” That’s where you want to hang out, and that’s also where you’ll find others who share your interests.
“That’s it? Just show up?” you ask? Adopting an attitude of watchful waiting is a fundamental step in the process. It pays to set up for success, as well. Consider your forays out into the social world as chances. If you want to win, you have to play. Moreover, you want to play smart to increase your odds. So before you head out, stop and evaluate your presentation. Brush your teeth, and your hair. Are you clothes clean? Do you look good? If in doubt, change something and check the mirror again. Would you notice you? Now I’m not suggesting that you be a fashion slave, just that you be intentional about what you communicate about yourself to others. After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
When we first meet someone, eye contact is our first connection. We make a jillion assumptions about people based on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with truth. Does this person remind you of someone you like….or don’t? Are they part of one of your groups, or are they different from you? Are you physically attracted to them? Although sometimes we grow to appreciate someone’s looks as we come to love them, initial attraction is the norm. It immediately puts that person in a different category. Sexual attraction is a compelling force. If they share the reaction, sparks fly and pheromones permeate the air. We (stereotypically) become coquettish (if we’re female) or grandiose (if male). We revert unconsciously and somewhat uncontrollably to our ancestral selves, complete with biologically determined courtship dance routines. For those of you intrigued by this fascinating topic, find Sex Signals by Tim Perper, books by Helen Fisher, author of The First Sex, The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior, and Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce, or find a copy of Desmond Morris’s unfortunately titled Manwatching, in which there we are in all our animalistic, evolutionarily-charged predictability.
Now that we’ve made eye contact with someone we’re attracted to, and they seem interested in us, too, what happens next? Then we need to speak. It doesn’t matter much what we say, though witty opening lines can be attention-getting and remembered. On the other hand, smarmy comes on turn people off. There are a number of books available to smooth this part of the process. A book I heartily recommend is Carol Queen’s Exhibitionism for the Shy, a guide to how to become socially graceful and confident.
So now you’re eyes have met, you’re pretty sure you’re mutually attracted, and you’ve begun a conversation. Let’s assume you find talking smooth and enjoyable. Awkward pauses are non-existent. You’re starting to feel a bit confident, and a bit aroused. You realize you’re thinking sexual thought about this person. When you’ve spent enough time to validate the mutuality of this attraction, move the two of you to another location. It doesn’t have to be to different province, or even building, but carve yourselves out of the group you’ve been in and geographically establish yourselves as a couple having a private conversation. This step isn’t mandatory, and is sometimes impossible, but it tends to move the process along more quickly and symbolically changes the dynamic.
Now it’s time for goal clarification. You’ve gathered a lot of information so far. You have chemistry, and you converse easily. Where would you like this go? At this point, you have a lot of power to decide what’s going to happen next. Are you looking for someone with whom to play tennis? A lover? A mate? Of course each of these has different criteria. Do you know what you’re your various criteria are? Making a list of attributes and ranking them according to priority can help avoid regrettable choices when hormones and opportunity combine to muddy our thinking.
You know the old chestnut: You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the handsome prince. Don’t think every frog is a prince. The concept of soul mates is fairytale thinking again. On a planet of billions of people, there is certainly more than one perfect mate for each of us. More likely, there are hundreds of others with whom we could happily couple. The problem is that there are probably hundreds of thousands with whom we would be mismatched. The trick is sorting the two piles accurately. Think critically. Don’t let the stars in your eyes blind you.
But let’s suppose that you have consciously assessed this person and decided he or she is worth risking a romantic encounter. You know that, whatever else may be in store, you are sexually interested. Now is not the time to become mute and to wait for sex to “just happen.” Bring up the topic of sex. You don’t have to be a boor or a bulldozer; innuendo and flirtation are easily decoded by a mutually-interested companion. Still, if sex is what you want, you need to communicate that clearly. Then you are ready to make a direct approach. Touch your new friend. I’m not suggesting you grab ass….after all, you are hoping to establish a mutually-respectful encounter. But making physical contact will give you lots of information about how this new partner responds to you. When you place your hand on his or her shoulder as you laugh at a joke, for instance, does s/he lean in to you, pull back, or remain stationary? Read the body language. After all, you’ve made no binding commitment yet. If you are seeking a responsive lover, pay attention to what kind of response you get from touch. It’s an important indicator of what may lie ahead.
The next step is establishing a specific date. Suggest spending time together doing an activity that you’ve already determined interests you both. Even going to a movie together will work, although sitting in a dark public place silently staring at a screen precludes conversation and further opportunity to assess whether this is, indeed, the direction you want to go. Regardless, build in time together after the event. Go somewhere private and comfortable and plan the main event. Talk about the kind of touching you like. Ask the same questions of your partner. Be specific. It doesn’t have to be unromantic. Not speaking about our sexual preferences is another part of the “spontaneous sex” myth, when we believe that owning our desire sullies it. Simply not true. Sex is play for adults. If you’re adult enough to be involved, then be adult enough to be proud and determined about your decision. It can be very sexy, indeed, to listen to your about-to-be-lover tell you what really gets his or her mojo going. Ditto telling your sexual penchants. And it takes a lot of the awkwardness out of the first encounter. If you hear that your new sexual friend swoons to having his/her neck kissed, you’re guaranteed at least one move that will make you look like a sensitive and generous lover. The more information shared, the better the sex will be. This is NOT the time to stumble with shyness. Now is the time to embrace the moment, and your partner, and dive into mutual delight.
Coupling really is quite simple, once we get past the temptation to play games and avoid responsibility for our own actions. Remember, though, that a successful sexual encounter doesn’t guarantee a successful relationship or, for that matter, any further relationship at all. Do not confuse lust with love, which takes a loooong time to grow. What we are talking about here is only the first steps on that uncertain journey.
Dating is where the frog-kissing comes in. Just as every relationship begins with hello, each ends in goodbye, whether that’s tomorrow morning or when we are parted by death. Grab hold now and have the most fun you can. Appreciate every minute. Make wonderful memories.
When we are in high school (maybe even junior high) many of us are terribly interested in the dating scene.
Having a date on Saturday night boosts our status in our social circles, and we feel like we fit in, like we belong. Being teenagers, our school environment provides plenty of opportunity to meet potential dating candidates. The dating sea is full of fish, and the scent of adolescent curiosity permeates high school hallways. We approach dating with a carefree attitude, accepting it as a natural part of our passage through our teens. Sometimes our most serious considerations seem to be whether one of us has a driver’s license and access to a car, and the other has an older, sympathetic sibling who might be bribed into getting us beer. Dating is pretty simple, though with peaking hormone levels, unrelenting emotionality, and fledgling social skills, it can seem daunting.
Since we don’t get taught dating skills, we learn by observing how others do it, and our models are often our peers, equally unskilled and inexperienced. Rare indeed is the family in which our parents share dating tips with us. Lucky are those surrounded by older siblings and extended family members from whom we can pick up dating data just by hanging around and keeping our ears open, ever discreet lest we get dismissed for being too young to hear about that stuff.
And of course that stuff is sex. As preteens, we watch the pre-date rituals of shaving, grooming, dressing. We marvel at the excitement. We may even get to hear about the event the next morning. But we don’t very often hear about any sex that might have happened, other than a vague, “….and then we did it.” It can feel the same as when we were younger, trying to figure out where babies come from.
When it is our turn to start dating, we enter the arena sometimes frightened, often curious, usually ignorant.
We experiment and blunder, learning by doing. We are torn between anticipation, trepidation, and longing. Eventually someone catches our eye and our body responds. We become aware of wanting to touch them, of having them touch us.
Now sexual negotiation begins. What we know, how skilled we are at knowing what we want and how to ask for it, and how well we can negotiate all affect the course of our future social and sexual interactions. We become, thankfully, more graceful with practice, but unfortunately (and commonly) not before we have hurt or been hurt.
We struggle with figuring out what we are looking for, and even that target keeps moving. Attraction, affection, and lust all get wound up together and we use each to justify the others. We know how good touching feels, but we also understand the social, emotional, and physical consequences of touching too much. The double standard of boys’ being encouraged to ‘score’ and girls’ messages to be seductive but not seduced keeps us all a little off balance and unable to speak honestly about our short- and long-term goals regarding sexual behaviour. Now we are either supported or abandoned by the sexual and interpersonal information we’ve garnered along the way.
If we know how to find accurate information we can get most of our questions answered. And if we are confident and secure that we can make mistakes and still be embraced by our families and/or our friends, we can ask for help before we make mistakes. But we often feel neither informed nor confident. And too seldom do we have such solid support systems. Without that kind of back up, we soon realise how very hard decisions can be, and how big the consequences.
We need all the help we can get.
Though I believed that last month’s Hot Topic was complete, more and more thoughts on dating kept bubbling up–enough, in fact, to warrant another article.
Time after time, couples lament the failure of their relationships and endure months or more of hard-time grief when those around them wonder only how they stayed together as long as they did. From the outside, those unions are obviously flawed and doomed. Why can’t we see this from the inside?
A major reason for this lack of insight is our expectations of how the process works. Steeped as we are in the myth that “someday my prince will come,” it is amazing that we spend so little time defining the attributes of princes. If we make a list of the qualities we require in a mate (and refer to that list at the appropriate moment!), we save ourselves and others much grief.
What are you looking for in a mate? How does that differ from what you seek in a date? You may not care how your date gets along with her family or his employees, but those interactions will surely impact a long-term relationship. How we get along on Saturday night is important in dating, but how we live together as roommates looms large in marriage. How do you both manage money? What political and philosophical values do you share? What about lifestyle questions? If your idea of a perfect holiday is planting a new garden and your lover’s is a Caribbean cruise, you are heading for conflict or separate vacations!
None of these attributes matter much if you are ‘just dating,’ a fact we tend to forget. We can enjoy enormous fun playing with others whose differences preclude them from being our mates, but only if we stay clear about our agenda. In a society that equates kisses with contracts, becoming sexual with someone can elevate them to mate status inappropriately. This is culturally ingrained, especially for women. “But,” you argue, “I just can’t sleep with someone for the fun of it! That makes sex UNspecial!” Bollocks. Sex is special if the chemistry is there. Have we not learned that using sex as currency (I’ll give you sex if you’ll give me love) doesn’t work?
Of course each of us must decide what elements we require to agree to sex with another person, and we get to make that decision with each person and each encounter. Sex, however, does not promise love. Never has. We must remember not to get hooked emotionally when the hook is actually the intensity and fusion inspired by new sex. Is sex a part of love? Surely, but making sexual intimacy the only requirement for mate status is wrong-headed thinking.
The trick is to evaluate each relationship critically, regardless of whether it is sexual. If you are seeing someone with whom the sex is memorable but his/her housekeeping, or work, or drinking habits drive you nuts, do NOT try to shove this person into your Prince box. Disaster is guaranteed.
That is why we have dating, a system in which we can try people on for fit. Real compatibility is rare, and requires ‘kissing a lot of frogs’. We are foolish to ignore signs that we are poorly suited with a new lover, and we risk this if we must continue with them exclusively because we have had sex. It is not the best measure of compatibility. We are wise to hold out for the whole package.
If we consider sex as only one of the many ways we learn another person, and if we believe that sex is healthy, natural, and good, then we are free to judge our compatibility on more rational bases. We get into trouble when we pretend a relationship is what it is not, which we can easily do if we define it sexually. We all know (hopefully) about safer sex practices, so sex no longer need be the defining factor in our relationships. We will all be happier when dating replaces the madness of serial monogamy.
We can now have sex early when we are mutually attracted, yet we still think that that sex requires an exclusive commitment. When we stop defining our perfect match as the person with whom we are having sex, we allow each relationship to be realistically whatever it is, and not unrealistically more. When we locate someone who is actually primary partner material, we can negotiate an exclusive contract if that is what we both want. How much more honest this method is! How much more honouring of individual differences it is!
I am aware that this philosophy is uncommon. Some of you may be lamenting the time when a woman did not agree to sex until she was guaranteed a wedding ring. Those days are over…it’s time our attitudes more closely matched our behaviours. It is time we wait for a (near) perfect fit in our relationships and stop expecting sex to answer the question of whether a union is worth pursuing.
Dating can be fun. Sex can be fun. Love can be fun. They are not necessarily overlapping. Let’s do ourselves the honour of keeping them separate and waiting for our real Princes to appear before limiting ourselves to only one choice.
Fifty years ago parents wrung their hands wondering what to do with their daughter who was ‘going steady’ with her high school sweetheart. Back then, parents encouraged their daughters to see many boys, correctly believing that this would provide experience with a wide array of relationship styles, promoting better choices of a life mate. Behind that rationale, however, lurked a hopeful belief that seeing many casual suitors would keep their daughters chaste. The practical goal of society’s dating strategy was to get Susie to the altar, if not as a virgin then at least not as a mother-to-be.
The sixties’ sexual revolution, and the widespread availability of the birth control pill, changed all that. Now that girls could say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’ to sex without the threat of unintended and often unwanted pregnancies, parents squirmed realizing their little princess could be experimenting sexually with several boyfriends, none of whom she may marry. The face of dating changed.
Today, parents are relieved if their daughters hook up with only one partner. In the effort to keep our girls safe, we settle for fidelity if not virginity. Sadly, the double standard still informs our decisions about sex and dating—boys get a free pass (if not a wink and a nudge) about early sexual activity while girls juggle labels of ‘slut’ (those who put out) and ‘bitch’ (those who do not). Saddest perhaps is the trend for very young girls to provide sexual favours (usually oral sex) for multiple boys while receiving no sexual pleasure themselves.
Dating seems to have disappeared from our cultural landscape. People now define as single or partnered/married. Rarely do we hear that someone is playing the field or dating several people. The sex-negative message from half a century ago trumpets a different answer to the question of mate acquisition, but it is no less damaging. We hear routinely of new couples assuming sexual exclusivity after they have had sex but before they know much else about each other—an ‘all your eggs in one basket’ approach. Not surprisingly, most of those couples emerge some months later disillusioned and believing they will find true love in another lover, not in another system.
The opposite of single is married, not dating. Dating and marriage should feel different from each other. Why are we so quick to abandon the freedom of choice dating offers, replacing it instead with Polaroid-quick courtships and instant sexual exclusivity? Do we still believe that sex is so potent, so dangerous, that we dare not play with it? Haven’t we grown beyond the ‘kisses are contracts’ stage? Have we been so silenced about negotiation and communication that we settle for any relationship that affords us sexual gratification? Moreover, if that is true, how much talking could be going on within that relationship regarding how sex can best be expressed and enjoyed?
Surely we can do better if we define dating as an enjoyable process in which we learn about potential partners by trying them on for a good fit. We need not limit ourselves to exclusivity with each one to whom we are sexually attracted. We are willing to shop endlessly for a new car or home, yet couple far too quickly once we establish a sexual liaison. Responsible, compassionate sex should be an adjunct to the process of coupling, not the prime reason for doing so.
There is an old saying: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the handsome prince (or princess).” How much happier we would be if we used sex as but one of the many criteria upon which we base our coupling decisions.
I’ve found myself speaking a lot recently about the early stages of courtship. We are all fascinated with this period. We love asking couples how they met, and we love telling others our own story. We remember the bliss of those first months, filled with the thrill of new love, dampened by nothing at all. These early months, which we like to call falling in love, really have nothing to do with love, and that’s the part I’ve found myself explaining. It seems to fascinate everyone. So pull up a chair, boys and girls, and listen to my tale.
When first we meet someone new and our eyes lock across a crowded room, our attraction signals a myriad of chemical reactions. Biology claims dominance and we embark on a set of behaviours as old as primordial ooze. These are quite unconscious, although some part of us registers the signals. The pupils of our eyes dilate, for instance, which makes us appear more interested and interesting. The tilt of our head changes, as do inflections in our voice. We get high on attraction….actually, we get high on chemical endorphins triggered by our attraction, but that sounds so much less romantic, doesn’t it? And we love romance.
If our initial encounter goes well and we see this captivating person again, we continue to feel as if we’re floating on air. The mixture of desire and uncertainty makes a heady cocktail, and our sexual urges impel us to get and stay closer to our new object of desire. We are fascinated by everything they say, insatiable hearing their life stories and telling them our own. We can’t believe our luck at finding such a perfect person. We can think of nothing else. We become deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid. Our feet barely touch the floor. Our enchanted grins alert the world that we are ‘falling in love.’ Never before have we found such a match. Never before has the romance been more sweet, the anticipation more electric, or the sex hotter. We seem to agree on everything, and our few differences are all complementary. Perfectly mated, we are.
This intoxication marks the beginning of almost all of our romantic endeavors. Each time we make love, each time we gaze into each other’s eyes and melt with emotion, each time the excitement of sex bonds us again, we feel closer and more fulfilled. Surely, we vow, this love will never fade.
But there’s the rub….fade it does. The first six to eighteen months of a relationship are defined by what Dr. Dorothy Tennov called limerence (Love and Limerence, 1979), and what social scientists are now calling NRE (new relationship energy). While we are drunk with fascination, we spend as much time as possible with our new love. We learn all we can and judge how that knowledge melds with our own lives. Our rose coloured glasses distort our view, it’s true, but though we maximize the good news and minimize the bad, we still filter the evidence as to the fit of our new couplehood. If the fit is good, we continue on; if not, we break up.
It is at this point, if we continue, that we begin to see the beloved as a real person, another imperfect human being. Our vision becomes clearer and we see them warts and all. We weigh what we can forgive. We decide if we are amused or annoyed by their foibles. We decide how well we can accommodate our differences, and how well our commonalities mesh. We feel less compelled to spend every minute in bed making love, because now we are drawn to venture out into the world together, to announce our union, to establish our circle of mutual friends and to recontact our friends we’ve ignored for the past months. Life becomes more normal, more daily, and our original heat cools to an abiding and comforting warmth. Eventually, we realize this other person has built an irreplaceable nest in our heart, and we joyously fold our lives into each others.
THAT’s love. It offers it’s own rewards and sports its own features. As limerence burns itself out, love builds on itself and becomes stronger as our intimacies grow. Limerence is the magnet that pulls us together while love is the glue that keeps us so.
Too often we mistake NRE for love, and our society promotes that confusion. If, as time passes and we learn that our ‘limerent other’ isn’t nearly as funny, bright, or sexy as we originally imagined, we are filled with disappointment and long for the good old days when the sun always shone on us and everything was effortless and perfect. We bemoan the fact that ‘love’ has betrayed us, when actually we just consumed all the available limerence.
Or our long term relationship hits bumps and we miss those uncomplicated, heady months. We believe that the two people who danced so seamlessly could not now feel such pain at exercising our different selves. We need to realize that limerence/NRE, as beautiful and unforgettable as it was, lacked the substance we have now developed. Like childhood and adulthood, each stage is necessary and different, each has value, and each brings great gifts. The trick is to recognize each for what it really is and not try to make it anything else.
This August, Vancouver hosted the 33rd annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, where I was privileged …